- Historic Sites
A hundred and fifty years ago, a sea of grass spread from the Ohio to the Rockies; now only bits and pieces of that awesome wilderness remain for the traveler to discover.
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
The park at Rockford only hints at the prairie Dickens encountered. It points to the beauty and variety of plant life, witnesses to the riches that the deliberate observer can discern, but ultimately the prairie’s power, the power that troubled Dickens, lies in magnitude, a magnitude both of what there is and of what there is not.
Along miles of Illinois highways, the grass is no longer cut but grows, instead, wildly and unevenly. Signs declare the unmowed vegetation a consequence of conservation, not miserliness or neglect. Similar signs have begun to appear throughout the Midwest, part of a growing effort to reverse the eradicating work of mowers and herbicides, to allow remnants of the old grasslands to reassert themselves, and to save such endangered species as running buffalo clover. Driving south toward St. Louis, I found myself continually aware of the encroaching right-of-way, pleased by the beauty of the full-grown grasses, but vaguely disconcerted by the ebb and flow at the edge of my vision.
Immediately north of the expressway, to the west of State Highway 177 and south of Manhattan, Kansas, lies the Konza Prairie Research Natural Area, an 8,616-acre tract of land that has never been plowed and is now overseen by Kansas State University. Seen from the back—its only public entrance is off McDowell Creek Road to the west—there was a sameness to it all. Pleasant enough country with its low, grass-covered hills, it seemed to me, as I drove past, the backdrop for something rather than the thing itself, at most an unobtrusive setting for the broad expanse of sky, a sky that the little Rockford prairie filled in its upward thrust. I circled, swung around from Manhattan, looking for a way in. Once entered, the Konza was transformed. There remained the distant vistas, the long, unbroken stretch of land against sky, but there was, as well, a vitality that the Rockford preserve could only suggest.
What seems to have impressed Coronado most was the sheer emptiness of the place.
I could identify only a few of the plants that make up the Konza but have read the names given to prairie vegetation, a catalog that reads like a Whitman poem, a prairie litany: bluestem, needlegrass, Scribner’s panic grass, Indian grass, switch grass, Canada wild rye, dropseed, American slough grass, fawn manna grass, hawk weed, compass plant, prairie button, button snakeroot, fringed loosestrife, stiff bluntleaf bedstraw, Jerusalem artichoke, buffalo grass, prairie cat’s-foot, beard tongue, lousewort, bastard toadflax, locoweed, rattlesnake master, willow aster, blazing star, prairie rose, star grass, and oxeye daisy. The names testify to richness both of life and of imagination, suggesting the variety growing here. But the part of the grasslands we cannot see was what defeated the first efforts at cultivation. Beneath the surface a network of roots and rhizomes interlace to form a dense thicket of subterranean connections, over the millennia creating a sod so thick as to defy anyone who would turn it. Roots extended downward to depths of fifteen and sixteen feet, the thick growth aboveground equaled only, perhaps even surpassed by, what lay below.
This day in August, at noon, there were no shadows, nor, in the 104-degree heat, were there other people. A limestone house and barn marked the entrance, but a half-mile into the low hills and shallow valleys there was nothing but prairie. From this perspective a prairie is not a landscape that hurries the traveler on, but rather one that slows him. Its immensity, its apparent visual redundancy, makes pointless a rush to somewhere else and creates an overwhelming suspicion that there is nowhere else.
If Dickens found this sensation troubling—a reasonable enough reaction—I found it comforting as well. In time the prairie calls us away from a headlong horizontal dash and invites repose.
Time and again I found myself motionless along the path, unsure of why or when I had stopped, but rooted, watching and listening. No breeze stirred, and where the path swung close to a grazing area, even the cattle seemed immobilized by the heat. Everything was subdued. Still, the swells of grass moved, drifted ever so slightly back and forth as though the earth were breathing, and after a while a sighing could be heard, so soft as to be almost imperceptible, rising and falling with the vegetation. With each vague turning the grass spoke and the colors and textures of the landscape changed. The dry, baking heat rose from the ground as much as it fell from the sky; the air shimmered above the grass; and the grass continued to move like a listless sleeper for as far as I could see in this immaculate light. In a thicket of sumac and wild plums, insects began to whine. I brushed against a bush, and a cicada, thick-bodied—half blunt head—and still shiny green from its recent metamorphosis, blundered against my arm.